Posts Tagged ‘Investigative Journalism Crisis’

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The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, recently gave a speech to the Melbourne Press Club in which he outlined his visions for ‘Aunty’ in the years to come.

There were anumber of interesting takes on major themes in journalism – the need to keep investigative journalism strong, using social-networks for promotional causes (‘reaching audiences’ etc), and the tabloidisation of trusted brands in the online space.

“I wonder sometimes if the instant metrics generated in the online world are increasing the temptation to be tabloid in choosing news, pictures and headlines – to draw the eyeballs and the click-through – just as a tabloid designs page one to drive response from the newsstand”, Scott said.

Coming from several years back in the UK, it’s fair to say that the leading broadsheets on the left and right, The Guardian and The Telegraph, have done reasonably well in avoiding this dumbing down. I carried out a dissertation for a masters around 18 months ago, and found despite the fact articles about popstars and football rated very well indeed – usually at the top – online editors still resisted putting them in the most prominent positions, more often than not. Search engines, in-bound links and general curiosity brought people to them. Leaving aside tabloids proper, the same could not be said of ‘midrange’ papers, namely the Daily Mail, which pursue far more celebrity based ‘news’ online than it does in print – and does well in the ratings because of it.

“There is nothing wrong with tabloids”, Scott went on. “I hasten to add, nodding in the direction of journalistic colleagues from the Herald Sun. But in great newspaper markets – like New York and London, Melbourne and Sydney – the tabs and the broadsheets have operated side by side, offering different content to different segments of the market. They expressed themselves differently in many ways.

“In the online space, however, that distinction blurs – tabloids and broadsheets tend to behave the same way, as if the online audience’s primary need is to be entertained. The result is the kind of editorial thinking that means we get far more coverage – as has been noted – of Paris Hilton than Paris, France. More Angelina and Brad than Angola and Chad.”

There’s a lot in this, especially, at first glance, in Australia. You only have to look at the Sydney Morning Herald and the distinctions one can draw between the broadsheet and smh.com.au. The paper has fallen a long way with Fairfax’s financial issues arguably at the core, but as for the online offering, it’s getting harder to brand the smh.com.au website a ‘serious’ news site. Visit the site every day for a week, and judging by the homepage, it would near impossible not to call it a tabloid.

As for Australia’s public service broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, it will be an interesting challenge in the coming months and years to ensure the online offerings do not stray too far from what viewers and listeners honed on what can arguably called ‘broadsheet’ principles come to expect – the ABC and SBS do not create tabloid TV – even if online metrics are telling us to do something else.

After all, this is what state-funded journalism and ‘news’ is all about.

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There is hope, oh lovers of accountability, democracy, and whopping big come-uppances.

Just received word from a colleague that investigative journalists are actually being hired in London.

Iain Overton, a former executive producer of mine at More4 News (ITN), was recently appointed Managing Editor of the newly-founded Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It’s the first project of its kind in the UK, and has support from hugely-respected Seymour Hersh, and author of the worrying but timely Flat Earth News (currently doing my young journalistic brain in), Nick Davies.

“People from print, online and broadcast backgrounds are encouraged to apply, provided they understand how to conduct long term investigations, have a grasp of media law and are able to work both alone and heading up a small team.  Skills such as being able to understand financial data, how to carry out Fois and languages are all assets.”

So there you have it. Life in the old format yet. Hoorah!  Get in touch with ’em at jobs@tbij.com if you fit the bill.

I haven’t blogged for over a month, and the reason for that is that we’ve been on the road. Or in the air, or on a train. Lots of trains.

We’ve returned to Sydney after London and Berlin, and I’ve been out of Australia for 3 years. A lot can change in 1 year, let alone 3. As it happens, not much has happened in the Australian media landscape. Of course, a couple of things have come and gone.  Digital TV has expanded, slowly, leaving us with a few more offerings. The Sydney Morning Herald, the only intelligent paper not owned by Rupert Murdoch here in Australia’s biggest city, has lost a little quality. Online offerings of broadcasters have improved a little, of course.

But the overwhelming feature of Australian free to air TV remains – the enormous gulf in quality between the commercial TV networks, and the public service offerings of the ABC and SBS.

Last week, Channel Nine’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday made headlines in the rest of the English-speaking world for a piss-poor black and white minstrels routine. Never mind the shocking cultural insensitivity – the fact that Hey Hey’s comeback won the ratings battle on the night beggars belief. Marina Hyde in the Guardian used it as a stick to beat Australia with, a land which she suggested brings very little to the world of intelligent popular culture. (note; can’t for the life of me find a link for this. Have they taken it down?) Watching Channel Nine, or for that matter Channel Ten, and certainly Channel Seven, it would be entirely fair to come to this conclusion.

What has not changed in the last 3 years is the programming divide. In the UK, the debate around dumbing down has been going on for years. The once proud BBC current affairs strand Panorama is a shell of its former self. But quality factual TV – in the form of documentary and investigative journalism – is alive and well in Australia, on the ABC and SBS.  The current affairs shows screened on Channels 7 and 9 each weeknight, Today Tonight and A Current Affair, are some of the most vile programming I’ve come across. Dishonest, lazy and frequently bigoted attempts at ‘journalism’ might rate well – but any country’s media professionals would be proud of the work going on at the ABC and SBS.

This evening on ABC 1, the flagship news bulletin was followed by the solid current affairs 7.30 Report, which was followed by a typically thorough Four Corners film on businessman James Packer, which was followed by the ever-reliable spotlight of Media Watch. A break for the ever-present BBC drama (no changes there), and it’s back to serious business with Lateline, then Lateline Business. SBS went in with Indigenous current affairs show Living Black at 6pm, followed by an hour of the editorially-sound World News Australia, before Top Gear and Bear Grylls relapses, then the 9.30 World News. Tomorrow night they’ll be showing the outstanding Dateline international affairs show – which the ABC will match with Foreign Correspondent later in the week.

It’s often said that the US’s ‘culture wars’ might have come to an end with the presidency of Barack Obama. With Fox News around, that’s unlikely. What is interesting, though, is that this can be seen in Australia too; for the unibigotted, curious and intelligent television viewer, there’s plenty going on. There’s also plenty of crap on TV here, worse than Britain can serve up. And it’s mostly confined to the commercial networks, unlike Britain where commercial Channel 4, despite a lot of its own tosh, leads the way in news and current affairs (although receiving public money), while BBC One hardly deals with anything intelligent.

Yet the difference between the types of network in Australia is profound. There is barely a reason to grab the remote and leave ABC or SBS. It can’t be a good thing – but it’s the same as 3 years ago.

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